Peking University's new president Wang Enge faces huge challenge

New president of Peking University must work to repair its image after series of controversies

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 April, 2013, 4:33am

Peking University's new president Wang Enge remained largely unknown outside of small academic circles until his appointment was announced last week.

Wang succeeds the controversial and flamboyant former president Zhou Qifeng, who became president in November 2008 but had been dogged by a number of controversies, including leading a delegation to Chongqing in November to pay tribute to "creative reforms" launched by Bo Xilai , the municipality's disgraced former party secretary.

News of Zhou's departure was initially welcomed on social media sites, but attention has since shifted to the new president - a physicist known for being pragmatic and down to earth.

Wang now faces the challenge of restoring strained ties between the university and the public, contending with campus bureaucracy and leading the university, commonly referred to in China as Beida, in its bid to achieve global recognition as a top institute of higher learning.

In his inauguration speech, Wang said the university should have a dream - in the same way an individual or a country does.

"To build Beida into a world-class university is the dream of all people at the university," he said. "But a school can prosper only through hard work, while empty talk will hinder our development."

To build Beida into a world-class university is the dream of all people at the university. But a school can prosper only through hard work
Peking University's new president Wang Enge

Wang, a native of Liaoning, spent much of his career as a physics researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Physics and at Peking University before being appointed the university's vice-president in May 2011.

Yan Guanghui, one of Wang's former classmates at Liaoning University, described Wang as a bright student who was consistently among the top academic performers in his class.

Yan, now an associate physics professor at Liaoning University, said that what impressed him most about Wang was his diligence.

"He's very easy-going, but more reserved, and you hardly saw him partake in chit-chat with other classmates," Yan said, adding that Wang was "no less passionate" than any of them.

Before he began working at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in 1995, Wang spent three years as a post-doctoral student and later as a research staff member at the University of Houston in the United States.

With his research focus being surface physics, Wang has authored and co-authored more than 200 articles in peer-reviewed journals.

One of Wang's former students, Guo Jiandong , a physics research fellow at CAS, said that Wang's return to China after studying abroad was a bold move. It came when many academics were fleeing the mainland for better work and career prospects in the West, while those who returned were often perceived as being inferior, academically.

"He was a good mentor, because he didn't try to do things for people, but he led them on the right path to progress," Guo said.

Wang Xing , a third-year student at Peking University, said Wang was rarely seen in public, though his name appeared on posters for academic symposiums.

She said the new president must work to repair the school's image, largely through better communication with the public. She attributed the lack of communication to the controversies surrounding Zhou, who she described as loved and missed by students because he improved their living and dining accommodations over the years.

However, Xiong Bingqi , deputy director of the Beijing-based 21st Century Education Research Institute, said that public criticism targeting the former president had much to do with the fact that presidents of mainland universities were not openly selected, but rather appointed by the government. And the president of Peking University holds the rank of vice-minister within the mainland government bureaucracy.

Xiong said university presidents may become torn between their roles as government official and educator, and this opened them up to increased public scrutiny, particularly at a prestigious university such as Beida.

"So the euphoria over Zhou Qifeng's departure won't last long, because people will soon find out that the new president is very likely no different from Zhou, as [Wang] is a vice-minister appointed by authorities," Xiong said. "This means he's an official first, rather than an educator that the public expects."